Siobhan Martin is the UK HR Director and member of the UK Board and UK Market Leadership team for global consulting leaders Mercer. She also has a PhD in forensic psychology and is a single mum of two. Originally from Australia, she has lived with her children in London for eight years. We talk to her about Mercer’s flexible working policies and her family.
What makes Mercer’s approach to flexible working so successful?
Our approach to flexible working is that both the company and the employee can benefit from it immensely – and we both have a responsibility to make it work.
The vast majority of our flexible working applications go through because we make sure we prepare both the applicant and the manager, giving them information to help educate them before they go through the process. We ask people to think through what it means to them – why it may be a good idea and what they need to do to make it work.
When people know what they need to do to make flexible working a success, it has a much greater chance of succeeding long term, and being a happy experience for both sides. We’ve learned that if we take time to set things up properly before agreeing flexible working requests, life is much better all round.
How do you ensure people aren’t penalised for working flexibly?
It’s really important that our employees who work flexibly don’t feel sidelined – that they are still visible and can expect to be just as successful as if they work full time.
We’ve worked very hard to make sure that flexible working benefits everyone – that everyone is equally considered when it comes to making decisions about promotions, pay and opportunities; even down to who leads projects or becomes part of delegations going overseas.
In one project I’m working on we take people with a high potential to become leaders of the future and challenge them to come up with commercial ideas for our business based on their area of expertise. I then get their ideas in front of our global leaders. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to learn, create networks and help make their ideas a reality.
When I’m looking for men and women to choose for the project, I particularly go for the ones who aren’t necessarily the usual suspects – the people who maybe aren’t as visible, but are great at what they’re doing. It’s an opportunity to spot talent and give them exposure.
I think it’s really important to have leaders that don’t just look for the easier option. It can mean more work as you need to find the people and give them support, but the pay off for the business is immense.
Do you see a tangible business benefit to supporting flexible working?
Absolutely! Non-monetary benefits like flexible working help us to retain high performing future leaders. When people are considering questions like, ‘Why do I wish to be here?’ and, ‘What do I get out of it?’ benefits like flexible working are a really important factor.
We want our employees to be able to pursue both their life and their work – not offer them a false work-life balance dilemma. Life needs to work as a harmonious circle. Challenges happen at home and at work, and we need to make it possible for them to manage both.
In short, we don’t want to train people up for them to move on somewhere else, and flexible working arrangements help us maintain a high retention rate of employees.
What other ways do you help support female employees?
I think it’s really important for people to have visible role models they can go to. We have something called the Influence for Impact programme in which we bring groups of people together and encourage them to talk about behavioural issues, such as how they can deal with stuff behind the scenes, navigating power and corporate politics.
It can be difficult to learn, but it’s important to talk about them openly so people understand why they maybe got sidelined or missed out on an opportunity. When they understand their own role in a situation they can be more active in changing the outcome the next time.
While we do run some mixed gender groups, we find that women really appreciate the opportunity to discuss things in a female-only environment and just focus on themselves and the issues they deal with for a moment.
Recently I was a speaker at an event called Helping Leaders Succeed. I talked about the visibility of senior role models, and why it’s important to be open about things that are hard to talk about. All too often, organisations get caught up in the technicalities, but they really need to focus on the human aspect and heart – to help both men and women see what’s possible, and to know what we senior leaders really judge them on. So they can see the things they need to do to take their career forward, and not just reach a level and plateau.
How do you manage your own family and work?
In all sorts of interesting ways! In my own mindset there’s no false dilemma between work and family – it’s all together. I’ve raised my children to support me and understand that. I value my role as a mother above anything else in my life, and being aware of that allows me to make good decisions and stand behind them. I can’t always do everything I want with my children, but I’m enriching their lives and can see it as they grow and develop.
I’m teaching them self reliance and responsibility. They have opportunities that other children wouldn’t have had, and I’m privileged that I can bring them into things that other people can’t. Sometimes we all feel let down, however sorry is a very powerful word. But I don’t say it from a place of motherly guilt.
A few weeks ago I had to be away all weekend for work and when I came back my son said, ‘You’re on the board mum how come you couldn’t have picked another weekend to do this?’ I explained to him that it’s not just about us; that other people have lives too, and that it’s hard sometimes because we can’t have what we want. We have to take it as it falls and make the best of it when we are together.
I celebrate and make a big deal about the things we do well, and try to find the optimistic and positive – and look for opportunities that might enrich my children’s lives. For example, they get to meet really interesting people; recently I had some clients over from Japan and we all went out together with our families. It was great for our clients to make personal contacts, and an enriching experience for us all. Technology is fantastic too, and makes it much easier to do things together – I don’t have to be bound to the office all the time.
Whatever you do, that’s the reality of your family’s world. Sometimes that means giving up things, but you need to get to grips with that and move on because that’s just life. Sometimes I feel sad and disappointed or lonely, but I have no place for guilt. The only reason I would feel guilty was if I made a bad decision and negatively affected someone’s life.
I think you need to be open about what you do – and we are. I explain that we may lose something now because of work, but we gain another time. This is how we get to eat and live after all. It’s also important to be open with your emotions and disappointment.
Where do you think you get your strength and ideals from?
My mum. She raised four children on her own in rural Western Australia after emigrating from England. She is an amazing woman and a really strong role model; she really helped us to see possibilities and that things can be done a different way. I learned from her that you need to make your own luck and, unsurprisingly from a Blitz child – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
How Mercer helps working mums balance their career and family
Eve Read, [DC] Operations Leader at Mercer, explains how flexible working enables her to enjoy her career while spending guilt-free time with her daughter.
‘Like many women returning from maternity leave, I wanted to consider a more flexible way of working. I work Monday to Thursday, with one day from home. I try to leave the office each evening at 5pm to take over child care from 6pm.
My work pattern is generally fixed but I have some flexibility to change working days and/or stay late when needed. I have a laptop which allows me to work on the train and to do some work in the evening if needed.
I find it easier to work extra hours on the day that I work from home as I can switch on the laptop and check emails during breakfast and carry on after 5pm, which is a bonus!
I make sure my calendar clearly shows when I am working and when I am in the office versus working at home. As I work across global teams, I also mark clearly in my diary the times I generally can’t make calls/meetings. I often remind colleagues of my working patterns so that we’re all clear on when work is likely to be done/delivered.
The main driver for me is that I am able to spend more time with my daughter than if I worked full time and entirely from the office. This gives me the opportunity to still have a career whilst feeling (generally) guilt-free about the time I’m spending with my daughter.’